The Conservative government is often seen as being secretive and obsessed with hoarding information – a characterization that is not entirely unfair. So when the federal Information Commissioner recently reported that the past year saw signs of “clear deterioration in the access to information system,” the law by which Canadians can get their hands on most government data and documents, it wasn’t exactly unexpected news. The headlines, and the articles, practically wrote themselves. Yet a closer reading of Suzanne Legault’s annual report tells a different, and surprising, story. The impression of diminishing transparency isn’t borne out by the Commissioner’s statistics.
The number of complaints handled by the Office of the Information Commissioner rose by 9 per cent in 2012-13. That’s not ideal. But when considered over a longer period, the volume of complaints has been dropping. Over the past four years, complaints are down nearly 5 per cent. The inventory of outstanding complaints has also steadily decreased, from 2,086 in 2009-2010 to 1,796 this year.
Another promising statistic: The office continues to close 99 per cent of its cases through mediation. In almost all the cases where a greater intervention by the Commissioner was called for, recalcitrant federal departments were brought to heel.
The report paints a picture of a complaints system that works, led by a dedicated Commissioner shielded from political interference by a seven-year mandate. We share Ms. Legault’s concern that budget cuts are making it difficult for some departments and agencies – the RCMP and Parks Canada, in particular – to respond properly to requests for information, but it will take a few more years of increases in complaints to convince us that there is a “clear deterioration.”
Of far more validity is the Commissioner’s call to update the 30-year-old Access to Information Act to reflect the massive changes in technology that have occurred since its adoption. Information is created, stored and shared in ways unimagined by legislators in 1985. A document is no longer a piece of paper in a filing cabinet. Much of the information that government gathers, and the reports it creates, should be made public as a matter of course, online. It’s already in electronic form; government shouldn’t wait for a legal filing to move it from one side of the firewall to the other. We agree with Ms. Legault that the health of Canadian democracy is linked to the health of the Act. Ottawa should finally heed longstanding calls to modernize the law and, above all, extend its reach to Parliament.